Posts Tagged ‘Corrections’

Illiterate road to prison reform

January 3, 2010

Uppity Wisconsin:

Time was when politicians who wanted to show their anti-crime bona fides would rail about how prisoners were watching color television — or any television at all.

In Wisconsin these days they don’t even want prisoners to read books.

At the state level, the Dept. of Corrections has made it as difficult as possible for a well-intentioned Wisconsin Books to Prisoners project to function, banning any used books. Since the project relies largely on donations of used books, that has crippled its ability to fulfill the many requests it gets from Wisconsin prisoners. It sends books to prisoners in other states, almost all of which allow that. That struggle continues.

Now, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke closed the county jail library on Nov. 1 and will do the same at the House of Corrections on Dec. 31. Clarke offered no reason and caught the Benedict Center and librarians who operate the program by surprise.

I wondered aloud at Uppity Wisconsin whether the officials making such illogical decisions are illiterate themselves. If they have such little common sense and/or compassion to keep prisoners from reading you still think they might have read at least one report on the benefits of educational material for offenders.

Rainbow Book co-operative (co-founded by Ald. Marsha Rummel) details:

While some prisons accept hardcover and slightly used books, the best donations are new soft covers. Prisons will not accept books that contain any handwriting, margin notes, or highlighting.

Crime and punishment in Wisconsin

September 22, 2009

Zach W from Blogging Blue, friend of the Sconz amidst the unforgiving world which is the Wisconsin blogosphere, will be featured today in a mini-special on corrections reform in the Badger State. Although I disagree with Zach deeply on this issue, he knows a lot about corrections so I thought it’d be useful to give him some space. Here goes:

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the provision contained within the most recent state budget, otherwise known as 2009 Wisconsin Act 28, that would make all but the most violent offenders and sex offenders potentially eligible for early release. At the time, I voiced my support for the measure, and I cited data from other states that seemed to support the contention that strong reentry programs, combined with a concerted effort to reduce prison sentences, seemed to be having a positive impact when it comes to reducing recidivism rates.

While I still believe in the merits of reducing sentences for some crimes while focusing on efforts to provide more support for individuals reentering the community after spending time in prison, I’ve come to the realization WI Act 28 may end up doing more harm than good when it comes to keeping communities safe. At the time I wrote my earlier entry, I was operating under the assumption the very worst of the Wisconsin prison system, including sex offenders and violent offenders, would be ineligible for early release from prison and early discharge from extended supervision (parole). However, having had the opportunity to have the practical application of WI Act 28 explained to me, it’s been made abundantly clear to me that the early release provisions of WI Act 28 were poorly thought out and seem to have no rhyme or reason.

Here’s a perfect example: under the new early release provisions, an individual convicted of aggravated battery to an unborn child is statutorily eligible to earn early release from prison as well as an early discharge from extended supervision once released from prison, while an individual convicted of a nonviolent offense such as misconduct in public office is not eligible for early release from prison or an early discharge from extended supervision. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not arguing misconduct in public office – or any other felony, for that matter – aren’t serious offenses, but they’re certainly not as seriously assaultive as a crime like aggravated battery to an unborn child.

In fact, a quick look at the list of offenses that will be eligible for early release from prison and early discharge from extended supervision shows a good number of violent offenses, including:

Class F Felonies

  • Second degree reckless injury
  • First-degree recklessly endangering safety
  • Assault by prisoners
  • Causing great bodily harm by tampering with household products

Class G Felonies

  • Homicide by negligent handling of dangerous weapon, explosives, or fire
  • Homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle
  • Abuse of vulnerable adults
  • Felony intimidation of a victim
  • Felony intimidation of a witness
  • Second-degree recklessly endangering safety
  • Endangering safety (by discharging firearm into a vehicle or building or setting a spring gun)
  • Physical abuse of a child (recklessly causing great bodily harm)

Class H Felonies

  • Aggravated battery to an unborn child [statute 940.195(4)]
  • Aggravated battery [statute 940.19(4)]
  • Battery by prisoners
  • Battery to jurors
  • Battery to probation and parole agents and aftercare agents
  • Battery or threat to witnesses
  • False imprisonment
  • Stalking
  • Physical abuse of a child (intentionally causing bodily harm)

Keep in mind the lists compiled above are in no way inclusive of every offense that will be eligible for early prison release or early discharge from extended supervision; there are scores more crimes that I didn’t list, in the interest of keeping this from becoming too lengthy. However, that list includes some pretty violent offenses, and it seems to me individuals who commit the types of violent offenses I’ve listed are precisely the individuals who need to be held fully accountable for their actions, instead of being granted early release simply to save money and clear some bed space in the Wisconsin State Prison system.

Unless the provisions of Wisconsin Act 28 are coupled with a renewed effort to provide adequate post-release services for offenders – services such as alcohol & drug treatment, domestic violence treatment, mental health counseling, housing, and employment – offenders released under the provisions of Wisconsin Act 28 will only end up caught in a revolving door of incarceration while endangering communities across Wisconsin in the process.

Feingold proposes voting rights for felons

July 27, 2009

If there’s any succinct way to described Russ Feingold, it perhaps is embodied in that corny T-Shirt that Dennis Denure sells on State St: “Spinegold”

Feingold seems to be the commander of all the political battles that other members of Congress won’t touch – civil liberties, prosecution of Bush administration officials, earmarks, and most recently, the rights of former prisoners.

In America today, more than five million citizens are unable to vote due a felony conviction, nearly three-quarters of whom are no longer in prison.  Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Rep. John Conyers’ (D-MI) bill would allow these Americans to exercise their right to vote if they are no longer incarcerated.

Wisconsin, to my knowledge, restricts the rights of felons from voting. The Journal-Sentinel advocated the repeal of that restriction two years ago. Of course, that kind of sympathy for offenders doesn’t go far in a state with a 19th century corrections system. For that type of enlightened thought you’d probably have to go to the Gopher State, where residents are imprisoned at 1/3 of the rate as they are here.

It’s hard to gauge what kind of political support Feingold and Conyers have in Congress for this kind of reform. I can safely say that plenty of Democrats will vote against it – especially in the House where there is still a large contingent of Democrats from conservative districts in the South. One thing we can be sure of is Feingold’s commitment to this goal. It is very unlikely that he will obediently put the bill on the shelf if leaders in the party pressure him to, telling him that it’s politically dangerous. He will at least get to bring it to a floor vote, and the country will be able to see which of our leaders are truly interested in treating crime and which are simply content punishing it.

Doyle is not a corrections reformer

July 25, 2009

If you thought that Gov. Jim Doyle’s support of modest sentencing reforms was evidence of a practical, humanitarian approach to corrections – then you’ve successfully been misled. Looking at Doyle’s political career holistically, he is at best a prison partisan who saw sentence reforms as a painful way to cut spending in the face of a disastrous deficit.

Let’s not forget, in supporting early release for good behavior, Doyle was mostly cleaning up for the disaster he caused as attorney general a decade ago when he approved the “truth in sentencing” policy championed by Gov. Tommy Thompson. Doyle was an enthusiastic yes-man on the issue, riding the anti-crime hysteria that defined the pre-war on terror 1990’s.

Even when Doyle came around this year, proposing cost-cutting measures that included allowing prisoners to earn early release through good behavior, he nevertheless did not hesitate to water down the reforms proposed by legislature Democrats, which went further in demanding results from the Dept. of Corrections. To paraphrase Doyle’s veto message, “it would be unfair” to expect such drastic change in policy. Remember, Wisconsin only imprisons three times as many residents as Minnesota, a state of practically the same population and crime rate. We’re in no hurry.

If anything demonstrates Doyle’s subservience to the prison lobby, it’s his most recent nominee to the Dane County Circuit Court, Amy Smith, the deputy secretary of the Department of Corrections.

Smith, according to numerous sources, is an awful addition to the judiciary. As a prosecutor she has been cited for making dishonest statements to courts on two separate occasions. Unsurprisingly, both lies were made during drug prosecutions, when Smith denied striking deals with witnesses for the prosecution.

Brunch Links

July 20, 2009

Uh oh, do you have a case of the Mondays? Unfortunately you can’t shoot me for asking. Either way, we’ve a few good news items today, including a corrections officer robbed of his ID and badge at a bar. Corrections has been on the brain lately, what with sentencing reform, a humane society program that allow inmates to train dogs. Today is another look at the ugliness of our system…

AP: The Wisconsin Supreme Court will decide today whether 16,000 inmates at Milwaukee County Jaily are eligible for compensation for being subjected to crowded and filthy conditions.

Journal-Sentinel: Need a fake ID? Rob a prison guard.

State Journal: Crime or fear of crime? “In some cases, long-time residents of some neighborhoods are afraid of young blacks and Hispanics who are not breaking the law.”

Bill Lueders: “But perhaps the biggest culprits of all are never implicated. I’m talking about ordinary health care consumers. These are the folks who let the current rotten system continue. How? By putting up with it.”

The Daily Page: “Café Monmartre was a second home to Madison musicians.”

The Chief: “Kevin Fischer’s attempt at being clever was so poorly executed that it could be read that he was calling liberals “Jews.”

Prisons team up with Humane Society

July 19, 2009

It’s been mostly good news coming out of the Department of Corrections this year. First, the budget included crucial sentencing reforms that would allow convicts to earn early-release with good behavior. I was ready to be satisfied with that until I saw this story over at the Wheeler Report. It turns out that people aren’t the only ones getting second chances in Wisconsin this year.

The Department of Corrections (DOC) and Dane County Humane Society (DCHS) today commemorated the start of the new “Second Chances” dog socialization program at the Thompson Correctional Center (TCC).

Dane County Humane Society (DCHS) dogs enrolled in “Second Chances” typically have a more difficult time finding a new home due to poor training and social skills.

This 12-week program, which began June 28th, offers these dogs a second chance through additional training and development of important social skills. Selected TCC inmates provide handling, caretaking and personalized training of the dogs, under TCC staff supervision and with the instruction of a DCHS canine behaviorist.

A good plan indeed. One of the episodes of “Lock-Up,” the perpetual MSNBC “special” on prisons featured maximum-security inmates who were allowed to keep cats as pets. Anybody who’s seen a normal person – with access to family, friends and a life – smooch a dog in plain view can understand how meaningful animal companionship can be to a prisoner who has none of the above.

Also note that I was reluctant to post anything good about the Humane Society, as it was one of about 20 potential employers that have politely declined access to my talents this summer.

Doyle gives mixed signals on prison reform

July 10, 2009

Gov. Jim Doyle has disappointed some in his own party by vetoing some key provisions of the early-release program put into the budget that was signed last week. For the first time since 1999, Wisconsin offenders will be able to earn reduced sentences with good behavior. It’s the beginning of a serious corrections policy in Wisconsin, which has one of the most ineffective and morally corrupt prison systems in the country. Not too mention one of the most expensive.

Doyle vetoed a part that would put caps on the amount of time offenders could serve for violating their parole/extended supervision. Currently an enormous chunk of Wisconsin prisoners are behind bars for simply violating the terms of their extended supervision – meaning they often haven’t committed a new crime. The average supervision violator spends 18 months in prison for it. At a cost of $99 million a year. But that doesn’t even compare to the havoc the policy wreaks on that person’s life and the damage it does to communities. Turning minor offenders into long-term inmates is perhaps the only real way to ensure that crime becomes their career of choice.

Nevertheless, Doyle is correct in asserting that judges, not lawmakers, should generally be the ones deciding sentences. Although there are reasonable maximum and even minimal sentencing guidelines that should be imposed, judges shouldn’t be constricted too much. But the legislature’s request was reasonable – parole offenders who haven’t committed a new crime should definitely not spend more than 6 months in prison. 6 months? Stop a second and contemplate 6 months in prison. Maybe you’ve done it – chances are if you live in Wisconsin you have a very good chance of being a good person who’s spent that kind of time behind bars for a petty offense. Doyle should not have vetoed the provision.

Other recommendations included limiting the time offenders spend on extended supervision to 75 percent of the time they spend behind bars, setting a goal to reduce recidivism by 25 percent by 2011, expanding community-based mental health and job placement services for offenders and giving judges the authority to hand out shorter sentences if offenders complete court-ordered treatment programs.

In the budget he signed last week, however, Doyle vetoed the 25-percent goal in recidivism reduction, the cap on extended supervision and the six-month limit on prison time for revocations. While the Legislature didn’t propose allowing judges to hand out shorter sentences contingent upon successful treatment programs, it would have allowed judges to review sentences that have been reduced. Doyle vetoed that, too.

It shouldn’t be too big of a deal that Doyle didn’t sign the 25 percent goal. This state is dying for corrections reform and everybody in the legal community can see the evidence surrounding us. Just look to Minnesota, which has a third as many prisoners and a third the cost of our corrections system. It also has a slightly lower crime rate. But, like most things supported by reason and/or science, Wisconsin Republicans are predictably vociferous opponents.

Citizens of Wisconsin beware: Thousands of dangerous criminals will be out of jail early and they may soon be coming to a neighborhood near you,” Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford said.

That makes sense. When one is sentenced to 6 months in prison but gets out in 4 – they’re considerably more dangerous. That two months they would have spent in prison magically destroys  their will to be naughty.

Gitmo prisoners in Wisconsin? Yes please!

July 6, 2009

Now that Republicans and Democrats have agreed that opium dealers from Afghanistan are infinitely more threatening than crack dealers from Kenosha, it’s nice to discover an analysis of the Guantanamo Bay dilemma that is free of the media gossip about what figure is going to turn up at your local Open Pantry.

You see, despite what the nattering nabobs of negativism say in D.C., terrorist suspects are more than welcome in small town prisons. So explains Eric J. Williams in the Capital Times:

Outside Washington, town after town, from Colorado to Montana to Tennessee, proposed bringing the enemy combatants to their communities.

The public’s surprise that small towns are vying for Guantanamo inmates just demonstrates how little urban and suburban Americans understand about rural America. For the rural communities, prisons and prisoners are about the promise of more jobs and more money.

One was Florence, Colo., where some of the current controversy is focused. It is the home to ADX Florence, the “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” where the federal government houses its most disruptive inmates under supermax conditions. It is home to “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski, would-be shoe-bomber Richard Reid and 9/11 co-conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, among others. And the town of Florence actually raised money to pay the federal government for the privilege of housing these inmates.

In the past, the government bore the burden of convincing towns of the benefits of having a prison. Today, communities must show the government why they are the best location for a prison.

Too true. In Wisconsin rural communities got so prison-crazed that the state eliminated the requirement that prison legislation be accompanied by a cost estimate.

Yes, in Wisconsin every single piece of legislation is required to include a cost estimate – except crime bills. That way legislators can brag about how much they’re cracking down on bad guys, about the new prisons being built in their districts, but they don’t have to face up to the cost for the tax payer.

State dictator wields veto pen

June 29, 2009

Looking through the list of Gov. Jim Doyle’s vetoes of the state budget is revealing. Wisconsin’s legislative system resembles a constitutional monarchy much more closely a republican government. The governor, although no longer able to essentially re-write bills by crossing out letters and reworking sentences, can still drastically change bills without the legislature’s approval. It’s incredible.

In his role as state dictator, Doyle provided mixed results.

He prevented illogical passions from bogging down sentencing reform by vetoing an unfair provision of the budget that would have made future offenders ineligible for the “early release for good behavior” program that was set up to reform our backwards corrections system and save the state big money.

For all the whining from right wingers about a tax and spend governor, Doyle actually came down on the side of business on a variety of measures in the bill. For instance, he vetoed a fee for construction landfills, writing that it was unfair to require owners of landfills and that the provision may have unintended consequences for construction during a time when infrastructure projects are meant to be a key for economic development. He also vetoed a $15 sticker for out-of-state boaters, expressing concerns of a deterrent effect on tourism. I would classify this as bullshit –$15? It would only be a problem if those who fail to get stickers got huge fines.

He reduces funding for the film tax credit from $1.5 million to $500,000. Barbara Lawton is going to be pissed.

He strikes one digit from a grant to the Pleasant Prairie Incubator Technology Center to reduce funding from $700,000 to $70,000. Ouch.

A compromise on corrections reform

June 21, 2009

It’s great that the GOP finally saw the light on establishing a system of parole in Wisconsin:

“I don’t think anybody involved in the system does not believe we could save some money by letting some people out of the prison system,” said Sen. Glenn Grothmann, R-West Bend. “And I am therefore not particularly adamantly opposed to the proposal.”

The new plan is actually a setback on the one originally proposed by Doyle. It allows early release after convicts have served 75 percent of their sentences, rather than 67 percent. A real plan would have included a considerably more radical change, which would allow convicts, especially non-violent drug offenders, to drastically reduce their prison sentences through participation in job-training programs, addiction counseling, etc. Depsite the improvements, Wisconsin will continue to have a backwards and ineffective prison system for the foreseeable future. The reason is most clearly demonstrated by Rep. Scott Suder, a Republican from Abbotsford who referred to early-release as “rewarding bad behavior.”

It rewards bad behavior. Letting people out for good behavior somehow encourages bad behavior. I am tempted to say that this is the stupidest comment I’ve ever heard in Wisconsin politics, but maybe I’m just not smart enough to understand such foreign reasoning.  Is there some law of physics that I’m missing here?